A gripping intellectual history reveals how Oliver Wendell Holmes became a free-speech advocate and established the modern understanding of the First Amendment
No right seems more fundamental to American public life than freedom of speech. Yet well into the twentieth century, that freedom was still an unfulfilled promise, with Americans regularly imprisoned merely for speaking out against government policies. Indeed, free speech as we know it comes less from the First Constitutional Amendment than from a most unexpected source: Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. A lifelong skeptic, he disdained all individual rights, including the right to express one's political views. But in 1919, it was Holmes who wrote a dissenting opinion that would become the canonical affirmation of free speech in the United States.
Why did Holmes change his mind? That question has puzzled historians for almost a century. Now, with the aid of newly discovered letters and confidential memos, law professor Thomas Healy reconstructs in vivid detail Holmes's journey from free-speech opponent to First Amendment hero. It is the story of a remarkable behind-the-scenes campaign by a group of progressives to bring a legal icon around to their way of thinking—and a deeply touching human narrative of an old man saved from loneliness and despair by a few unlikely young friends.
Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, The Great Dissent is intellectual history at its best, revealing how free debate can alter the life of a man and the legal landscape of an entire nation.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013
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Holmes’s penchant for false analogies, and what is supposed to follow from them logically, led him to his foolish earlier conclusions regarding freedom of expression...Thomas Healy’s informative and readable account of how and why Holmes changed his mind deserves an honored place in the intellectual history of the Supreme Court.Read Full Review of The Great Dissent: How Oliver... | See more reviews from NY Times
This is a fascinating look at how minds change, and how the world can change in turn.Read Full Review of The Great Dissent: How Oliver... | See more reviews from Publishers Weekly
The Great Dissent brings the origin of the First Amendment to life and makes its champion, Justice Holmes, a layered, multi-faceted figure at the crux of our personal freedoms.Read Full Review of The Great Dissent: How Oliver... | See more reviews from Blog Critics
Holmes wouldn't have described free speech or self-government in such elevated terms. He was too much the skeptic for that. But he came to understand, in his own way, the profound value of free speech to a free people. The story of this discovery is worth revisiting.Read Full Review of The Great Dissent: How Oliver... | See more reviews from WSJ online
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